Friday, 30 April 2010

Mantanah, South Norwood

You may be hearing a lot about Thai food in the coming months. Harrods, in whose food halls I've spent many a happy afternoon (though obviously never buying anything) are running a Thai promotion from 4th May until 6th June, and there is going to be a large Thai Festival in Trafalgar Square on the 5th June. To officially kick off the celebrations, I was very kindly invited to the launch reception in the Lancaster Hotel on Wednesday, nibbling on lovely fresh Thai canapés and answering questions about food blogging from friendly but clearly baffled Thais:

"Are you press?"
"Kind of - I have a food blog."
"What company do you work for?"
"I don't, it's just me, I don't earn anything from it"
"Would you like a duck roll?"

Most of the big names in Thai food in London were there (apart from Nahm, although based on everything I've heard this was perhaps a blessing), and it was nice to chat to the people from Patara and the Mango Tree and the Blue Elephant and try their food. It all got me thinking though - where are the decent, mid-range Thai restaurants in London? I have visited the Pataras in Mayfair and Soho and they're both very good, but these are high-end restaurants and the average spend per head can creep over £50 once you add in wine. At the bottom end of the scale you can pick up a Pad Thai for a few quid from the Whitecross Street market, but this is hardly anything to rave about. The food I had in Thailand, with its bold fresh flavours, unusual ingredients and a near-catastrophic level of chilli heat, was like nothing I've seen over here, and while I can appreciate that London restaurants may have to tone down the chilli slightly, I still haven't been anywhere for around £20 a head attempting anything much more than fishcakes and rice. Still, at least fishcakes and rice are recognisably Thai. One stall on Wednesday, from a restaurant I won't name, offered me a canapé consisting of tamarind and foie gras.

"We are calling it French-Thai fusion food!" the owner beamed. "We don't eat foie gras in Thailand!" he added happily, "People think it's disgusting!". I cried inside.

So the search for decent, affordable Thai food is on. Mantanah in South Norwood has been on my list for years, but it has taken until Wednesday's prompting to actually get me off my bum and onto the rickety half-hourly train service from Clapham Junction. If I was being kind I'd describe the location as 'unassuming' and the décor in the restaurant as 'faded', but some of the best food is produced in the unlikeliest locations, as anyone who's ever been to Whitechapel will tell you. We started with some sticks of battered and deep-fried sweet potato, and something called "Pearl of Mantanah".

Way too many greasy battered potato pieces were matched with a gloopy sweet chilli sauce which if it wasn't bought in was doing a pretty good impression of something that was. Worse though were the "Pearls", which were huge wobbly balls of sago containing a miniscule amount of peanut and chicken filling. The sago stuck to the insides of your mouth and glued your teeth together like putty - it really was pretty unpleasant, like something from a bush tucker trial. They either needed to use far more filling and far less sago or just abandon the idea altogether. Weird.

Mains were scarcely better. Pad Thai (our "control" dish) was greasy and way too sweet, a poor example of what is usually a tasty dish - even Thai Square can get this right. A chicken "jungle curry" had quite a nice broth but the pieces of chicken were overcooked and chewy and the flavours hadn't been allowed to mix together for long enough - there was no chilli hit at all until I unexpectedly bit through a whole chunk of the stuff and it blew my head off. Only something called "E-sarn classic" showed any kind of promise, which although also too sweet had a nice flavour and good mix of proper Thai vegetables like pea aubergine.

I was hardly expecting the greatest Thai experience of my life in Mantanah but I just came away with the impression that nobody in the restaurant really cared enough about anything they were doing. Tablecloths were dirty, glasses marked, and a bowl of water lilies by the front door was stagnant and ugly. The food, too, was clumsily seasoned and carelessly presented - the obvious comparison to make with SE Asian cuisine in the same price bracket is Mien Tay, where every last detail of every plate is fresh and beautiful. Mien Tay may be a one off, but it at least demonstrates how good SE Asian cuisine can be while resisting the temptation to use foie gras and charge £50/head.

It's strange that Thai food in Thailand is so right, and yet Thai restaurants in London so often get it all so wrong. Strange, and frustrating. But the search goes on, and I have a few more likely contenders lined up. Come on mid-range Thai restaurateurs of London. Don't let me down again.


Thailand at Trafalgar Square is on Saturday 5th June. More details here

Mantanah on Urbanspoon


Chris Pople said...

Sorry Emyr Thomas - I accidentally 'rejected' your comment and it won't let me unreject it! Here it is:

I'd be interested to find out if you do find a great mid-priced Thai in London as I can't say that I have yet, which is rather disappointing.

Mr Noodles said...

You should try 101 Thai Kitchen in Hammersmith which I thought was excellent. I also have my eye on a return visit to Talad Thai in Putney where I had a decent bowl of noodles.

Emyr Thomas said...

Here it is again!

I'd be interested to find out if you do find a great mid-priced Thai in London as I can't say that I have yet, which is rather disappointing.

Simon said...

Another vote for 101 Thai Kitchen - I may be biased because it's in my neck of the woods, but it's the best I've found yet.

Unknown said...

Sri Nam in Canary Wharf is quite good. It has a TV on all the time, which is odd, but the food is nicely done.

Kavey said...

Love the "Oh", [pause], "Would you like a duck roll?"

Made me giggle, that did.

HughTower said...

To repeat your sentiments wholly, most London Thai is utterly bleurgh and inauthentic.

However you should try Esarn Kheaw on Uxbridge Rd. Been once, made me happy.

Grauniad likes it too:

Andy K said...

Rosa's? The one near Spitalfields is certainly pretty good.

If only you could find a Thai meal like they make in Thailand - I think the air miles don't do the ingredients any favours...

Ollie said...

I'll add my name to the list of people recommending 101 Thai Kitchen - it really is fab. Your anecdote at the start made me right giggle.

Eva Lai said...

I know I was just a cute little teenager attending boarding school/ leaving boarding school back then, but everyone that I knew who had direct or quite direct dealings with Harrods pretty much told me that Harrods did rubbish human resources and did not look after their employees. Of course the documentaries will say that Harrods is so English and the Queen ordered from there etc., so the question is, do I believe in supporting an organization that works that way? It's just as well that you haven't bought much from Harrods. Sorry. I don't know what state they're in today, but it's like the direct experiences I've had with the Marriott Hotel about 5 years ago plus other people's stories being consistent with mine has put me off being any sort of a paying guest or client at the Marriott now or in the future.

Anonymous said...

101 Thai Kitchen, it is really good, and makes everywhere else look even worse

Eva Lai said...

So basically your foodie has tasted worse than it looks. Can't quite tell it's quite like that from the pictures.

William Leigh said...

Thai Kitchen 101 in the bomb-diggedy.

Krista said...

I like Suchard on Tooley Street between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. Cheap. Generally cheerful. Good food. Definitely up for a visit if you want to give it a try sometime.

Next time I go to Kobkun Thai--the Thai massage place on The Essex Road--I'll hit them up for some recs. (I'm the mayor, btw.)

I can't go back to Rosa's. Although the food was pretty good, I didn't leave my bed for four days afterwards. Seriously. (They were very sweet about it and offered to send me flowers.)

Hollow Legs said...

I haven't yet found a decent middle ground thai restaurant either, but the Thai Food Festival last year in Greenwich was pretty good - som tam so spicy it made me cry. This is a good thing.

Unknown said...

I am addicted to Addie's Thai in Earls Court